BEFORE 1936 the French trade union movement was a rather feeble affair and had little influence on the country's social evolution. The Confédération Générale du Travail (usually referred to as the C.G.T.) had been founded in 1895, and during the prewar years, when it was under the influence of revolutionary syndicalism, its membership never exceeded 600,000. During the war both its structure and its methods were modified. Its administration became more centralized and it began working more harmoniously with the public authorities. In the period immediately following the war the membership of the C.G.T. rose suddenly to 2,500,000 by the inclusion of categories never before organized -- clerks, agricultural workers, civil servants and technicians. A new trade unionism developed under the name of "Syndicalisme Constructif," which sought not only to make collective bargaining and arbitration universal but also to formulate a plan for the general economic reorganization of the country.

This development was rudely interrupted by the propaganda of the nascent Communist Party. In their attempt to gain control of the workers' organizations the Communists violently attacked the trade union leaders, created internal dissensions, and finally in the spring of 1922 -- contrary to the better judgment of the leaders of the C.G.T. -- succeeded in unleashing a general strike. It ended in disaster. The ensuing schism within the trade union movement eliminated it for fifteen years as an important factor in the social evolution of France.

The branch of the labor movement which was under Communist control -- the Confédération Générale du Travail Unitaire, known as the C.G.T.U. -- soon experienced the unhappy results of having to follow the shifting policies of a political party. One opposition group after another was roughly expelled. The practice of the C.G.T.U. in calling frequent strikes, which were thought of as "revolutionary gymnastics" rather than as efforts to gain tangible results, so discouraged its adherents that its membership fell from the 600,000 it had numbered at the time of the schism to less than 300,000 at the beginning of 1936.

On the other hand, the old C.G.T., after its initial setback, began rebuilding, and slowly regained its former influence over the working classes. As it was too weak to engage in large-scale social struggles it tended to make less use of the strike, seeking instead to settle conflicts through conciliation and arbitration. At the same time, it drew closer to its old antagonist, the State. To be sure, it still maintained the principle of direct action and sought to bring pressure to bear on the Government from the outside without itself entering into the political arena. An exception occurred in 1924 when it submitted its minimum program, drawn up in 1918, to all the candidates at the parliamentary elections.

In the international field the C.G.T. collaborated with such institutions as the International Labor Office and the League of Nations, where it came into daily contact with the representatives of the Government. The essential part of its domestic program was to look after the application of certain social laws and to get further legislation favorable to the workers onto the statute books. For ten years the C.G.T. fought to maintain and to extend the application of the 8-hour-a-day law passed in 1919; it also demanded the 40-hour week, vacations with pay and a social insurance law. The latter was put into effect in 1930, and thereafter one of the principal activities of the C.G.T. was the setting up of social security funds (known as "Le Travail"), administered autonomously under the control of the trade unions. This prudent course bore good fruit. One by one the different trade unions were reorganized, with the result that the C.G.T., which in 1923 had had only 1,296 component organizations with less than 400,000 members, in 1936 counted 2,500 unions with 900,000 members.

Even these figures were nothing compared with what they might have been if the labor movement had not been divided. After 1930 the rank and file plainly showed a desire for unity; nevertheless, six years were needed to bring this about. The C.G.T. and the C.G.T.U. declared themselves in agreement on principles, but neither would consider unity unless it seemed to constitute a triumph for itself. The Communists wished to form an alliance between the two organizations on an equal footing (even though the C.G.T. had three times as many members), with a mixed commission afterwards effecting a fusion between the competing units. But the program of the C.G.T. was to carry out the fusions first; then, with unity actually realized by the return of everyone to the old C.G.T., a congress would be called to determine the future direction of the movement.

This procedure was finally adopted. The amalgamation of the trade unions was carried out in the autumn of 1935, and in February 1936 an "extraordinary congress of unification" convened at Toulouse. On the whole this congress was a success for the old C.G.T., for its relatively decentralized structure was maintained against the wish of the Communists, who would have preferred what they called "democratic centralism" (in which the executive committee of the C.G.T. would be elected directly by the congress and would thus dominate the industrial federations). The new by-laws left to a national committee elected by the congress the task of choosing an executive committee responsible to it; this committee was composed of four out of the six secretaries of the C.G.T. and two of the leaders of the C.G.T.U. The C.G.T. continued to adhere to the Amsterdam International, and the congress confirmed its participation in the work of the I.L.O. and the League of Nations.

Lastly, the Toulouse congress affirmed that the French trade union movement must remain independent of all political parties and forbade members of the central committee of the C.G.T. to hold trade union and political offices at the same time. Nevertheless, trade union independence was not interpreted so strictly as it had been during the World War, for it did not exclude a certain amount of collaboration with the political parties in order to realize the organization's legislative program. It was on this basis that the C.G.T. adhered to the Popular Front, which was to assume power three months later following its electoral victory of May 1936.

Thus it came about that trade union unity had scarcely been regained when the formation of a Socialist-minded Government gave the workers the consciousness that, for the first time, the State would not use coercive measures against them in the event of a social conflict. The consequence was that the advent of the Popular Front saw the beginning of a tremendous wave of sit-down strikes throughout the country. The peak was reached at the end of June when there were 12,142 strikes and 1,830,938 strikers.

These events have aroused lively controversy. Some have interpreted them as a Communist attempt to create difficulties for a Socialist Government; others have detected in them evidence of action by extremists, Trotskyites in particular. The truth probably is more simple. For five years the workers had suffered from unemployment, low wages and a steady drop in their standard of living. For the first time they were in a position to turn the tables, to demand an improvement in their living conditions. That is why the strikes, originating in the minds of the working masses, escaped from the control of the trade unions or of any political party.

The C.G.T. immediately began the task of coördinating and directing the movement. It was not easy at the beginning, for in less than a year the membership grew from one to five million and there were not enough officials to take care of this crowd of newcomers. For a month the trade union secretaries, swamped with work, could do no more than superintend the general negotiations, leaving to the workers' delegates who were elected in each factory the conduct of the struggle in that factory. As for the Blum Government, it devoted itself exclusively during its first weeks in power to conciliation, arbitration and social legislation. Though it condemned the "sit-down" as illegal in principle, it nevertheless felt that this new form of strike meant that social change could be secured peacefully and that when there are nearly 2,000,000 workers on strike it is preferable for them to sit down rather than march. The Government therefore refused to use police measures and on June 7 and 8 brought the representatives of the C.G.T. and the most important employers' organization (the Confédération Générale de la Production Française) together at the Hôtel Matignon in the offices of the Prime Minister. The two groups quickly agreed to the principle that collective agreements should be immediately made in every French industry and that each plant should contain shop delegates empowered to lay the workers' complaints before the employers. They also decided on an immediate increase in the wage scale of from seven to fifteen percent, to be followed later by supplementary increases in any rates which were abnormally low.

At the same time the Government put through Parliament a group of social laws drastically modifying the status of the French working class. First came the measures providing for shop delegates and collective agreements; then those establishing the 40-hour law and vacations with pay (15 days of vacation each year, or six days every six months). Almost at the same time the more important measures demanded in the electoral program of the Popular Front were turned into law: the munitions industry was nationalized, the Bank of France was reorganized, and a National Wheat Board was set up to regulate the marketing of agricultural products.

These measures had their effect. The serious social troubles, which for a moment threatened to start a civil war in France as they had in Spain, assumed a less acute form. By July there were only 1,731 strikes and 181,000 strikers; in August, there were 542 strikes and 56,000 strikers; and in December, 302 strikes and 43,000 strikers. After these great strides forward the labor movement settled down to reorganizing itself and adjusting its activities to the framework of the new social laws.


The social reforms of June 1936, together with subsequent legislation, have greatly modified the legal status of the labor movement in France and have created a new juridical framework in which the C.G.T., now officially recognized as the representative of labor interests, occupies a leading place. To show the importance of these innovations we must devote a few moments to explaining the laws on collective agreements and on conciliation and arbitration.

Collective agreements were rather unusual in France before 1936. After an increase following the war they began to decrease. Thus there were 557 in 1919; then in 1920 they dropped to 345, in 1921 to 159, in 1927 to 58, and in 1935 to 29. The law of March 25, 1919, though giving collective agreements a legal status, did not give them much scope, for in effect it preserved all the old concepts of private rights. Further, the agreements were not binding on third parties nor could they be imposed on anyone without his express or tacit consent.

The law of June 24, 1936, altered the juridical status of the trade unions considerably, and brought a new form of collective agreement into being -- a contract in private law with regulatory effect in the trade or industry in which it is made. Although the law leaves the responsibility for drawing up the agreement to the interested parties, it specifies precisely what matters must be covered: minimum wages by category and by region, the length of the paid vacations, the organization of apprenticeship, regulations relating to trade union freedom, and the institution of shop delegates. If one of the parties refuses to conclude a collective agreement, the law provides that no one can force him to do so; however, the Minister of Labor can call a meeting of a mixed commission to discuss the matter. To this meeting are invited the labor and employer organizations which are most representative of the branch of industry involved. The Government has thus officially recognized a qualified form of industrial unionism.

But the principal innovation was unquestionably the provision for extending the procedure outlined above -- that is, the power given the Minister of Labor to transform a private agreement into a code for the whole industry in a given region. This procedure was rapidly put to use, for it met a pressing need. In the large cities, well-organized unions had been able to obtain better working conditions, while elsewhere wages remained at a lower level because the social laws were not always respected. Small-town business concerns thus had enjoyed an advantage over those in larger cities which had to shoulder heavier social responsibilities. Hence it was to the interest of both capital and labor to see that the agreement was universally respected.

In order to extend the agreement a request to that effect must be made jointly by the labor and employer organization which are most representative of the industry and district in question. This agreement must contain provisions required by the law, and no others; for example, an agreement containing a "closed shop" clause would not be acceptable since its general use would destroy trade union freedom, although such a clause would be valid in a private agreement.

If the agreement complies with the necessary conditions, the Minister orders an inquiry to be carried out among both the workers and employers of the district in question. He then decrees that the agreement is obligatory in that particular industry and district. This decree is not for a fixed period; it remains in force until the agreement, thus generalized, ceases to have effect, either because it has been denounced or revised by the interested parties, or because one of the parties is no longer representative, due to the withdrawal from its organization of one or more groups. We have here a curious juridical phenomenon: an instrument of public law -- the decree of a Minister -- which ceases to have effect as the result of an agreement between the private parties concerned.

The mandatory provisions of the law concerning collective agreements set up a procedure for settling differences as to its application and for revising the agreements themselves. In a few weeks French industry had entered into more than 8,000 agreements, most of them containing conciliation clauses and to a lesser extent arbitration stipulations. Since most of them were concluded for six months or a year, they were due to expire at about the same time; and if difficulties had arisen about revising them, the Government might again have been faced with 2,000,000 strikers, as in June 1936. It was to avoid this danger that the Government twice extended the agreements of June 1936, and then finally intervened itself to make sure that they were revised peacefully. These successive steps finally led to the law of March 4, 1938, which set up the arbitration regulations now in force.

First of all, this law reminds the interested parties of their obligation to provide conciliation and arbitration procedures in the collective agreements upon which they enter. In case these procedures are not provided for wholly or in part, the law stipulates that every dispute is to be submitted to a mixed conciliation commission for each Department and that the Prefect shall preside over it. If conciliation fails, the interested parties are invited to choose an arbitrator. If after two days they are unable to agree -- as most frequently happens -- the arbitrator is chosen in principle by the Prefect from a list of ten persons drawn up by the President of the Court of Appeal, or sometimes, if the problem is of national interest, by the Minister of Labor from a panel of sixty persons chosen by the National Economic Council. The decision of the arbitrator is final on questions of fact, but an appeal to the Higher Court of Arbitration -- which sits in Paris and is composed of three judges of the Council of State, two high officials, two representatives of the employers and two of the workers chosen by the most representative organization -- is permissible on grounds that he lacked jurisdiction, exceeded his powers or violated the law. Though the Court cannot pass judgment on questions of fact, it may quash an arbitral decision on legal grounds and send the parties back to another arbitrator.

As soon as the Higher Court of Arbitration had been set up it undertook to harmonize the previous decisions of individual arbitrators and to formulate juridical rules as to their legal powers. A preliminary question had to be dealt with immediately: What is the exact field in which the arbitral procedure shall be applied? Unlike legislation in most countries, French law does not distinguish between legal and economic conflicts, nor between the interpretation of an existing law or collective agreement and the formulation of a new agreement; all that is left to arbitration, provided the conflict between the employer and the worker is collective in character. To be collective a dispute must: (1) concern a claim presented by an individual against a collectivity of workers either organized in a union or at least represented by chosen delegates; and (2) it must have reference to a rule or principle contained in a collective agreement or in a labor law which concerns the workers as a body and not merely as individual union members.

This question has arisen in particular in regard to the discharge of workers, a matter which the employers have always refused to arbitrate. For the moment it seems to have been accepted that the dismissal of individuals, even of several of them simultaneously, does not establish a collective interest if it was motivated by strictly individual reasons (incompetence, insubordination, adverse economic conditions). An example of a collective dispute which comes within the arbitrator's jurisdiction is the dismissal of a shop delegate on account of his union activities rather than for incompetence at his job; also within his jurisdiction is the discharge of a worker either because of the way he exercises his trade union privileges or because he has violated the terms of a collective agreement. The collective character of the conflict thus depends on the real motives of the employer. To judge them the arbitrator must conduct a thorough investigation. If the workers are unable to refute the plausible and substantial allegations of the employer, the arbitrator declares that he has no jurisdiction in the case. If, however, he finds that the reasons for the discharge as given by the employer seem far-fetched, and if the worker brings out facts which give grounds for believing that the employer has abused his right to discharge, the arbitrator assumes jurisdiction. He may then either oblige the employer to indemnify the discharged worker, or order him to reëmploy him, subject to a penalty for each day of delay in carrying out the order.

In the matter of wages the law of March 4, 1938, lays down specific instructions for the arbitrator. Wages are not to be changed unless during the six previous months the cost of living has varied by five percent, or during a shorter period by ten percent. In either case the arbitrator is supposed to change the wage scale in proportion to the change in the cost of living, unless the employer proves that such a readjustment would be incompatible with the local or regional economic conditions of the industry in which the request for a wage adjustment is made. As a matter of fact, such proof has very rarely been presented, and the arbitrators have usually raised the lowest wages to conform to the cost of living, with smaller increases in the higher wage brackets.

There remains the question as to how the arbitrator can enforce his decision. The law of March 4, 1938, made recourse to the arbitrator and acceptance of his decision obligatory; but at the same time it preserved intact the workers' right to strike and the employers' right to lock them out. In other words, the arbitrator had no means with which to enforce compliance; it was perfectly lawful -- and this is what happened in most cases -- to declare a strike or a lock-out before resorting to arbitration; it was also permissible for either or both sides to continue the dispute by refusing to accept the arbitral decision.

Until recently, therefore, arbitration was not really obligatory in France. All that the State did was set up a new procedure for settling disputes under which both sides would find it more advantageous to accept the arbitrator's decision than to run the risk of offending public opinion or of engaging in a ruinous struggle -- unless the issues were of the most fundamental sort. This psychological coercion was reinforced last November by a decree providing for real sanctions against any party refusing to accept the arbitral decision. Recalcitrant employers are excluded from serving as judges in the commercial courts, or as officials either in the chambers of arts and crafts or in the other official organizations; nor can they compete for state contracts. Refractory workers find their labor contracts annulled and themselves legitimately subject to discharge. This is not yet legal coercion; but it does represent a withdrawal by the State of its protection and a refusal to reward those who do not accept the decision of an arbitrator.


On the whole, labor sentiment as expressed by the leaders of the labor movement was favorable to the new legislation. The C.G.T. in particular was pleased at what it regarded as official recognition of its position. With its 5,000,000 members it was the most representative labor organization in the country as a whole; while its departmental units in most cases enjoyed a similar priority. For it was practically always the C.G.T. unions which signed the collective agreements and obtained their renewal, designated the labor arbitrators and represented labor on the mixed commissions. Under the terms of the new collective agreements, which suddenly rose in number from twenty-odd to several thousand, labor's privileges were augmented by the creation of shop delegates -- workers chosen to represent labor in the factories. Even the instrument of arbitration was finally accepted, after some hesitations, and the more militant leaders gradually adapted themselves to the new juridical framework and to engaging in discussions and friendly negotiations. The result has been that they have acquired a new sense of responsibility. As M. Belin, one of the secretaries of the C.G.T., wrote in January 1938: "French trade unionism is no longer in opposition, it is no longer outside the law, for it has accepted the idea of labor legislation. Social reforms no longer seem to it to be one-sided: the worker resorts to arbitration, seeks collective agreements, and places himself under the ægis of the law -- which subjugates, yet protects."

This evolution has not taken place without serious resistance. In spite of the apparent unity of the C.G.T., conflicts still continue between the Communists on one hand and Socialists and non-political trade unionists (these latter in particular) on the other. In the executive committee the two Communist secretaries, MM. Frachon and Racamond, though outnumbered by the four representatives of the old C.G.T., are younger and wield a growing influence. They have engaged vigorously in propaganda, have increased the number of meetings, have come most closely into contact with the militants, and therefore have become best known to rank and file members.

The Communists have done the same thing in the departmental unions and the industrial federations, where for a time they were enormously successful in boring from within. Without directly attacking the local secretaries they have carried on a whispering campaign and have sometimes succeeded in replacing them with new men who are not necessarily openly allied to the Communists but who are nevertheless sympathetic with their ideas or willing to be manœuvred by them. Furthermore, the organization of the Communist Party itself, based on the cell, often permits it to elect its own members as shop delegates. Thus on several occasions, especially in the Paris region, which was formerly the stronghold of the C.G.T.U., wildcat strikes have spread from one shop or factory to another without previous notice and sometimes against the orders of the union involved, though the latter in the end managed to get control of the conflict and submit the question to conciliation and arbitration. When the arbitrator had issued his decision, it was generally accepted; yet a few days later a new strike would be called on a new pretext.

Unquestionably these Communist activities among the Paris unions during 1937 and 1938 had a great effect in lessening the country's productive capacity, in alarming French public opinion, and in shaking the Blum cabinet, which did not wish to use force against the labor union movement. The dangerous agitation by the Communists led to the complete defeat of the strike of November 30, 1938, and the ensuing serious setback for the trade unions. The C.G.T. congress, meeting at Nantes, decided by an overwhelming majority to call this strike in spite of the hesitation and passive resistance of Secretary Jouhaux, who sought to gain time and prevent hasty decisions. The Communists were able to push their motion through the congress because of the excitement aroused throughout the country by certain decrees promulgated by the Daladier Government, several of which were considered particularly objectionable by the working classes. Among these were the decree prolonging the working-week beyond the 40 hours stipulated by law (the unions had declared themselves ready to accept all the extra hours necessary for national defense on condition that this question was decided by common agreement and not by fiat); the decree limiting overtime pay to ten percent of the regular wage; and the decrees setting severe penalties (discharge and cancellation of unemployment benefits for six months) for workers refusing to work the extra hours, and providing additional taxes on small incomes and a premium on "deserters" who had placed their capital abroad. Above all, intense feeling was created by the contempt shown for Parliament by the Cabinet; the Prime Minister had promised to convoke Parliament on November 15, but by November 30 it still had not been called.

In the form which it took, this strike was a huge mistake. It might have been otherwise had the C.G.T. confined itself to a symbolic stoppage of work for only a few hours, and if the particular object of the strike had been to force the immediate convocation of Parliament. We must not forget that it was the general strike of February 12, 1934, which had saved the Republic from the Fascist menace -- and incidentally saved the life of M. Daladier, whom the Right at that time wanted to shoot.

But instead of adopting a limited objective the C.G.T. assumed the rôle of a state within a state; unquestionably it exceeded its labor union function when it decided on a 24-hour strike as a protest against fiscal decree-laws over which Parliament alone had jurisdiction. Furthermore, by announcing the strike several days in advance it gave the Government (no longer animated by the moral and legal scruples of Léon Blum) time to prepare its resistance. By illegally stretching a law which gave the executive the right to requisition forage for the army, the Government was able to take over the important public utilities and to make any worker who went on strike in these requisitioned industries liable to prosecution before a military tribunal. The strike was a complete failure -- especially in Paris and especially in the industrial federations under Communist influence. Curiously enough, the only industries where the strike was really effective were those where the unions originally had been opposed to the strike but participated in it loyally once it had been called. The Communists, on the other hand, after having been ringleaders during the agitation, were the first to go to work on the thirtieth of November.

This fiasco unquestionably dealt a rude blow to the C.G.T. For a time there seemed a likelihood that, as with the strike of 1922, it had completely destroyed the progress made by French trade unionism since 1935. The retaliation that followed the strike was drastic. Numerous civil servants were suspended. Most of the employers refused to take back workers who had struck, in particular the shop delegates and the more militant members of the unions. Sometimes even the representatives of the more moderate element were not rehired. The social laws could not be invoked because the Higher Court of Arbitration decided that the strike had had a political motive, that it had injured the employers' rights under the labor contracts, and that the latter could therefore legitimately discharge all their workers.

It looked for a moment as if the employers were going to take the counteroffensive, and attempt to destroy the labor union movement entirely. However, the international events of recent months have rapidly eliminated this danger. In the face of grave perils from abroad, all Frenchmen have realized the necessity for a solid national front. As a matter of fact, most of the workers who were discharged have now been rehired. Recent arbitral decisions, after reaffirming the principle of non-discrimination, have gone on to state that the freedom of trade unions had been violated when the employers -- whose right to dismiss all their employees who had struck on November 30 was unquestioned -- refused to rehire the union leaders and the shop delegates along with the rest of the workers.

It may now be said that the essential features of the social laws of 1936 will probably endure. Even though the workers in the war industries realize that for them there can be no limitation on the length of the working-week, the collective agreements nevertheless remain in effect, while the legislation concerning arbitration is actually being strengthened.

As for the C.G.T., it seems at first glance to have weakened perceptibly. Instead of the 5,000,000 members which it had in 1936 it now has less than 3,000,000. However, the elements that have left were the most unstable, being in the main the workers easily influenced by extremist agitation. Besides, the considerable diminution of Communist influence frees the hands of the C.G.T. leaders and enables them to rebuild the organization with greater care. Of late, labor circles have been discussing the social experiments carried on in Sweden. Last summer leaders among the employers and employees of that country visited France and explained to their French colleagues how industrial peace is amicably preserved between them under the Swedish procedure. Perhaps, if world peace is somehow preserved, we in France are on the threshold of a new concerted social experiment which will finally place relations between capital and labor on a firm foundation.

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